Statement by Peyton Hall, FAIA, Historic Architect, Historic Resources Group, LLC
Our work on the Gamble House, USC, began in 1997 with an invitation to assist with obtaining a grant for the purpose of writing a Historic Structure Report. A truism of art and architectural conservation is that a project is 90% planning and 10% execution. This is the first project in my thirty years of practice where the client took that approach to heart. Edward R. Bosley, James N. Gamble Director, was patient and thoroughly involved, insisting on “the right way” and listening carefully.
The Gamble House is an icon of American architecture. As an eighteen year-old first year student in an architecture major, it was one of the landmarks of domestic architecture, in an international context, introduced to me by professors in both history and studio design. Having chosen a specialized career in the conservation of historic buildings, the opportunity to work at the Gamble House was, sincerely, the high point of my career in 1997, and remains so today, after eight years. No project carries a higher sense of responsibility and pride.
The work that was carried out on the house and garage in 2004 was the culmination of a close collaboration among the Director, John and Stephanie Griswold of Griswold Conservation Associates, and David Charlebois and Robert Soto of California Restoration and Waterproofing, who provided pre-construction advice on budgets and methods of construction. We had the luxury of a consulting scientist as well, James Martin of Orion Analytical, who worked under John Griswold’s direction to help examine and analyze small samples of the exterior finish. Along the way, with help from the Getty Foundation, other experts were brought in to review our findings and ideas as peer reviewers. The planning phase was educational to me at a much higher learning level than most projects.
We intentionally blended approaches of historic preservation and art conservation in order to do the best possible work for the benefit of the Gamble House. The level of investigation and documentation was very high. The specifying, bidding, and carrying-out of the work brought this high-minded approach into reality. For example, we used highly qualified, but conventional professional painting crews working side by side with a hands-on architectural conservator on the scaffolding to test cleaning and coatings, and make judgements in the field as the work progressed and the results were visible.
The construction photographs illustrate the high level of care and protection that was maintained throughout the construction phase. The site was impeccably clean; the scaffolding was painted to blend; the scaffolding was not attached to the house; a fire-resistant wall was built to shield the house from hot roofing tar and compressed gas used to heat it. While only a few wood shakes were accidentally damaged during the construction, small losses that would have gone unnoticed on a conventional construction project were major issues during construction.
We are unabashedly proud that we were part of a quiet and persistent project leadership team that was attentive to a long term vision. The Gamble House is currently in better condition than it was found in 1997, and, if we made the right decisions, a future team will find that while it may need attention, we did no harm.
The Project Context
Notable aspects of the work are thoughtful seismic strengthening, the investigation and treatment of exterior wood and finishes, and the imperative to protect a site during risky construction activities. However, there is a larger story, a context, for the recent work that was completed at the Gamble House. The Gamble House Conservation Project demonstrates the importance of integrity and maintenance in the stewardship of architectural landmarks. It is important to retain the integrity of the property by protecting the materials and finishes associated with the David B. Gamble family and architects Charles and Henry Greene. The maintenance of the property requires good planning and perpetual vigilance.
Conservation of art and architecture requires knowing the object or building in terms of its value. The Gamble House represents the American Arts and Crafts movement, Charles and Henry Greene, and the David B. Gamble family. It is a rare case of a historic house of extraordinary craft and quality that survives in good condition with an unique collection of furniture designed for the house by the architects. It is an authentic experience of a particular American family’s life in 1908. The wood shake siding and hand-finished wood stair railings are the same features that artisan Peter Hall crafted for the Gamble family’s daily use and pleasure. Every wood shake, trim, and piece of furniture is indispensable. We inherit the privilege of enjoying these valuable objects, and the responsibility of taking care of them for our successors.
The value of the Gamble House and its materials dictates that we do our best to prevent deterioration and to do no harm. Even a temperate climate threatens wood, and it is a matter of time before the next earthquake jolts the building. How strong is the Gamble House? What are the characteristics and condition of the building’s materials and finishes? Understanding the building is the first step in considering what response is appropriate for long term care. The Gamble House Historic Structure Report was completed in 2000, provided a comprehensive review of conditions and recommendations. Historians, architects, conservators, and scientists contributed to the effort.
Architects and builders conventionally implement a short term “project” that conforms to a tightly written contract. This is true of The Gamble House Conservation Project. However, the project was assembled from a compelling list of needs that were drawn from the Historic Structure Report and investigated in more depth by the Director and a team of consultants. The treatments were specified to respond to deterioration, to protect the integrity of the existing materials and finishes, and to do no harm. However, the use of gentle and conservative treatments was reinforced by the knowledge that the Gamble House organization, Board, and staff, has funded and is committed to a program of ongoing vigilance and long term maintenance.
The Historic Structure Report addressed housekeeping, security, periodic inspections, and tour policies. The Conservation Project was an essential milestone in the stewardship off the site. However, it is equally significant that an already successful organization has embraced the responsibility of a high level of conservation. A broader and longer term perspective at the Gamble House bodes well for a long, healthy life for an irreplaceable landmark.